opportunityWith March upon us graduate program admissions committees have made their decisions and have sent out their first waves of acceptance letters. If you’ve been accepted by a program, congratulations! Chances are you have more than 1 offer. Now it’s your turn to make some decisions. Most programs with winter application deadlines will want your choice by the middle of April, so time is of the essence.

Now what? How do you choose between your various graduate program offers? You may not sense this is the biggest career decision you’ve ever made. But it probably is.

One thing is certain. Your graduate program experience is going to launch your career on a trajectory that it would take any other way. That trajectory will differ remarkably for each of your offers…this is the classic Road Not Taken problem Robert Frost penned so elegantly, “I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.

Your guiding principle during this decision process is think of each option as an opportunity. All of the opportunities differ to some degree. Which option offers the best opportunity for you and your future?

Your Programs Can Answer Your Questions

Now is the time to lay out the programs side-by-side in microscopic detail. The internet is not going to be very helpful in answering many of the questions that arise. Only the faculty, staff and students of the programs you’re considering can answer them. Be certain to circle back with them to ensure you have all of the information you need to make your best decision. This is NOT a time to play cat and mouse. If you are uncertain about anything, reach out to them directly.

Put yourself in their shoes. The fact that they accepted you means they want you to be there. A lot. They really would hate to lose you because of a misunderstanding. Don’t be shy to ask.

Are You Sure They Offer The Opportunities You Want?

This is the biggest question for you to settle. The primary reason you’re going to graduate school is to satisfy your academic curiosity. If the specialist material you crave is simply not there, you’re at high risk of growing unhappy with your choice. For example, many graduate courses can be offered infrequently, sometimes only once every 3 years or so. Find out if the coursework that interests you the most will actually be offered during your residence.

You have even more prep work to do if you’ll be on a research degree track. Your choice of mentor will define your experience. Reach out directly to specific professors whose research interests you. For now, just check to see they are accepting new students in the next year or so. Be on the alert for any red flags. Pick a few professors associated with each program, to ensure you have a backup that you can be happy with in case something goes wrong with your first choice after you enroll.

There are many factors to consider in assessing these options. Beth Bowman at Vanderbilt University’s Biomedical and Biological Science graduate program has assembled some fantastic advice on what is involved in choosing a mentor and how to go about doing it. Her blog is definitely worth reading.

If you are unsure about what research you specifically want to do that’s perfectly ok and very common. But you should still inquire to get a sense of what proportion of the program faculty professors have the resources and time to take on new students. Would you be happy with those options?

Compare Costs, Not Just Sticker Prices

While it is important to ask yourself whether you can afford to attend a specific school, don’t forget to ask whether you can afford NOT to attend one program or another. You don’t need me to tell you how to compare stipends and tuition and housing costs. But I can point you to some things that you might not be aware of that should weigh strongly in your decision. For example, you are probably going to earn a good living after graduate school. What impact will your choice have on your earnings down the road? What kind of track record do program graduates enjoy afterwards?

Ask yourself whether some front-end sacrifice now can lead to higher dividends later. Don’t get blinded by a higher tuition or a crappy stipend offer that is, in the big picture, only marginally worse than some other crappy stipend offer or barely lower tuition.

Remember, your income is very unlikely to be grad school crappy forever. Your lifetime earnings should be better. It won’t be easy because things seem to have gone out of control lately, but you will probably will be able to manage your student debt. With a graduate degree, you probably will be OK. With the right degree, you may be even better.

Making these judgments means you’ll have to peek around corners. You’ll need to identify and then weigh risks and opportunities that are difficult to be certain about. You’ll need to honestly evaluate your strengths and weaknesses. And there are no guarantees. Might as well start learning how to do these “risk assessment” and  “vision” things now because that’s a skill set that tends to make people with advanced degrees valuable.

But my main bit of advice here is to try to think strategically about how your program options might influence your career launch.

Hidden Costs

Having said that, let me say another word about the smaller costs that add up. Again, stipends and tuition and rents are easy. Graduate students tend to become unhappy when blindsided by unexpected costs. What about software fees? Does the university offer grad students free productivity software–such as MS Office, EndNote, statistical packages–or are these costs on your shoulders? Universities have wildly varying policies in this regard.

Health benefits? Childcare? Use of the athletics center? Parking? Free bus shuttles or other low cost commute options? Movies and shows and other good but low cost entertainment?

I’m not kidding here either: I’d even go so far to recommend asking how many times per week the program serves pizza to the graduate students. Being a graduate student is about learning how to stretch an impossible budget in 1 month increments. Always has been, always will be. These hidden costs can add up to the point where it can make all the difference between soup with or without noodles at the end of the month.

Place and Lifestyle

Most graduate students pack up and move someplace to attend school. Think about moving as an opportunity with a couple of important facets. Graduate school is a good excuse to experience a change in place. For example, you might move across the country to an entirely new region that has always struck your fancy. Or, you might wish to attend a program in a college town knowing that your career afterwards will almost certainly put you in a major metropolitan area. Or vice versa.

Graduate school is a way to test drive a new town or city or region to see if its the kind of place where you’d like to plant roots after you graduate. Is that place a good employment center for the career you imagine after school? Employers in metro areas tend to have better opinions of people who emerge with graduate degrees from their local universities, compared to those from outside the region. If that is a place you might want to live, you could have a leg up.

Yes, your program will allow you outside of the classroom or lab or library for a few hours each week. Are there things nearby that you enjoy doing? Are you passionate about an activity that you’d be able to continue or have to give up to attend grad school? A big part of happiness in graduate school is how you spend your (limited) time outside of school.

Most importantly, there is a high probability that your personal life will change profoundly while you’re in graduate school. Most graduate students are young adults. Pair bonding is one of those biological imperatives of young adulthood. What is the meetup scene like?

If you come as a single, there is a good chance you’ll finish graduate school with a partner. If you begin graduate school with a partner, you might end up finishing with a baby in your arms. Don’t forget to look around that corner, too.

Program Culture

How does the graduate program treat its students? Are students on the program steering committees and do they have any voice in shaping the program? Is the program student-centric or is it more aloof? Does any of this matter to you either way?

There are two minds on these questions from a faculty perspective. What I’ll label as the old school way is to believe the job of the program and its faculty is to educate students in this specialized subject matter, because its an education not a career placement service. Besides, all the faculty know from a career perspective is the academic track. For many students, particularly those with a clear vision of their trajectory, that can be all they need.

Others believe that in addition to educating the students, programs should put effort into making students more aware of the various career opportunities that their education will prepare them for outside of the academy. Some students (and faculty) prefer to be in this kind of environment instead.

For the purposes of making your individual decision on where to matriculate, neither environment is necessarily all right or all wrong. It depends upon what seems like a better fit for you. However, in the aggregated space of graduate school, we’re long past the time of going about our business the old school way.

Finally, do the people in the program get along? Are you comfortable with the faculty and staff and current graduate students? If you interviewed, hopefully you did so in a group and was able to meet several of your future classmates. How well do you think you’ll get along with them?

Big decisions like these are never perfect, they are never simple. When your only options are good opportunities, by the very nature of the problem, you’ll probably have to turn down something very good. When you put it into perspective, that’s just not a bad place to be.

As I said before, congratulations. We wouldn’t be having this conversation if you hadn’t earned the privilege.

Unfortunately, I feel compelled to have this discussion because some effort on the front end can go along way towards ensuring that you’re satisfied with your decision. Unfortunately, 25% of current graduate students wish they chose a different program. That’s a sobering statistic that indicates too many mistakes are being made. Too many misapplications. Too many mis-acceptances. Too many mis-matriculations.

Whether you become one of those statistics is something you can potentially control now with some upfront effort.

Probably. There are no guarantees.